State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 64 Spring 1999

9

Poems by Sidney Nolan

Fragment at Glenrowan

Fragments of bone
and armour burning
relics are now done
the mind past turning.
Blood is present
and perhaps is burning
soon to be urgent
its own pain calling.
Seventy years past
and sunlight burning
the gun still fast
and eyes past yearning.
Is the bush still clear
and the story still new
the blood in the tear
and the dance in the dew
The dance along the artery
the circulation of the lymph
are told in different stars
another eucalyptus leaf.
Love is now done
and past its changing
fragments of bone
and armour burning.
Is the bush as before
with the armour burning
two boys on the floor
and eyes past yearning
10

Bush-Fire

We are nearer fire
than you know,
not the fire
of the brain or
even of saints,
not the fire
of reconciliation,
of rights, of fraternity
or even of charity.
We are nearer fire
than you know,
not the fire
of the heart or
even of love,
not the fire
of incredulity,
of spirit, of miracle
or even of truth.
Not these fires
but bright fire …
born of the grass
and trees, covering
the sky with
force, with fire …
demanding obedience;
making both eyes equally mad, and
enduring for ever.
11

Drought

Drought and love
and love and drought
cursing the love
and cursing the drought.
Cursing the love
made dark in his eyes
ploughing the sand
disguised as land.
Finding the shells
with the sea's cries
walking the land
that is dry sand.
Ploughing the heart
of his two dark eyes
losing his sight
in the even sands.
Watching the wheat
that cheated his eyes
cursing the hands
that cradled the sand.
Drought and love
and love and drought
cursing the love
and cursing the drought.
12

Coopers Creek

As crystals descend
through the evening
so the camels descend
and men descend
in this extraordinary
continent.
As drought destroys
through the earth
so the throat destroys
and thirst destroys
in this extraordinary
continent.
As heat discards
through a heart
so the heart discards
and skin discards
in this extraordinary
continent.
As men vanish
through their eyes
so the bones vanish
transparent
in this extraordinary
continent.
13

Nhill

[I]

Even though the cock
cannot crow since it
only points the wind,
the dawn is still a pose
that holds a right or
wrong when the night has
held only a deed, not
done, but implied in a hot heart.

[II]

A red light, not like a star
but in a stars place, giving
ease to birds that do not
sleep at night; because they
have no feathers, only steel.
And their sound is perhaps
like flies in the heat, or
perhaps a sound conscious
on the eve of its own ease
failing, or its own mangling.
14

Early Convict

Metal on flesh
iron on the ankles
and in the soul,
iron from the hills
in which you
murdered, murder
in the bush, murder
in the brain.
Here are your
particular marks
burnt on the flesh:
sun, heart, and dart;
foul anchor,
soldier and woman
R.D.A.B,
launch, cross flags
and crown on left
arm; crucifix, maltese
cross, flags, skull
and bones
sword and pistol
on right arm.
Flowers in the air
and in the brain
iron from the hills
and gold in the stars,
use this left arm,
this heart and dart;
to strangle yourself
in Melbourne gaol.
15

Editorial Notes

In His Rebels and Precursors Richard Haese writes of Sidney Nolan: ‘As late as 1939 he seems to have been undecided whether to be a painter or a poet; in the end he remained both’. (p. 94) Nolan's interest in poetry, and his enthusiasm for the work of the French Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud in particular, has been the subject of frequent comment by art historians. Along with Max Harris he responded positively to the Ern Malley poems, producing a memorable painting for the cover of the issue of Angry Penguins in which they were published; and many years later he painted an Ern Malley series. He helped Sunday Reed with translations of Rimbaud, which were published in Angry Penguins, and himself contributed a note on Rimbaud. His work in later years includes paintings to accompany poems by Baudelaire (translated by Robert Lowell), Rimbaud, and Dante. A volume of his own poetry was published in 1971 entitled Paradise Garden, each poem being accompanied by a painting from the Paradise Garden series. These poems, which constitute a harsh retrospect on the Heide years, remain cryptic to the general reader; but even a reader unable to grasp the autobiographical allusions can appreciate the disciplined form and the aphoristic sharpness of expression. Apart from some ‘Notes for Poems’ quoted by Brian Adams in his Sidney Nolan: Such is Life (1987), these appear to be the only poems that were published in his lifetime.
In the John and Sunday Reed Collection now held in the State Library of Victoria, along with Nolan's letters are several poems and drafts for poems (MS 13186, Box 6, file 9), six of which are printed above. The texts are printed as they stand, except for the correction of obvious typing errors. None of the poems reproduced here is dated, but it seems clear that they all belong to Nolan's Heide period, and were probably all written when he was in the Australian Army stationed in the Wimmera.

Fragment at Glenrowan

Eight typed stanzas pasted individually on the front of an envelope, with the final stanza cancelled in pencil. The seven stanzas given here were published by Andrew Sayers in his essay, ‘Kelly's Words, Rousseau, and Sunlight’, in Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Story (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994). The cancelled eighth stanza reads: ‘Is the bush still clear / and the story still new / the blood in the tear / and the dance in the dew’. In 1946 Nolan travelled through the ‘Kelly country’ in the north-east of Victoria with Max Harris. The famous Ned Kelly series was painted between March 1946 and May 1947.

Bush-Fire

Typed on front of envelope. While stationed at Dimboola in the Wimmera, Nolan was involved in fire-fighting. Richard Haese writes: ‘The fires that threatened farms were fought but those in the scrubland of the Little Desert were allowed to continue to burn, the men watching and waiting for the fires to break back into crops and grassland. Nolan described the experience [to Sunday Reed, 12 January 1944]:
16

Private Nolan (No. V206559) c. 1942. Photograph by Charles Osborne, in Sidney Nolan, Landscapes and Legends: A Retrospective Exhibition: 1937-1987.

17
last night was like the beginning of a world, not much thought in my own mind anyway of the damage it was doing, it had a volition of its own that overpowered such thoughts …. I was frightened in some way of the might.
(Sidney Nolan: The City and the Plain, National Gallery of Victoria, 1983, p. 27.)

Drought

Typed on front of envelope. Probably written about the same time as ‘Bush-fire’, during the severe drought of 1943-1944. Drought was the theme of a memorable series of paintings by Nolan in 1953, following a trip to inland Australia.

Coopers Creek

Typed on front of envelope with pencilled corrections. This poem was written before Nolan had visited Central Australia. The explorers Burke and Wills, who died at Cooper's Creek in 1861, were first the subject of a Nolan painting in 1945. The pencilled draft of a poem about the explorer Ludwig Leichardt is in the Reed Collection.

Nhill

Written in ink by Nolan on memo slips of the A.M.F., each headed ‘Nhill’. Nolan was stationed at Nhill for a short time in 1942 and again between mid-January and June 1943.

Early Convict

Typed on scrap paper.

Acknowledgements

The La Trobe Journal gratefully acknowledges the permission of copyright holders to reproduce manuscript material that is still in copyright:
‘Reflections on Art and Life’ by John Yule (Ms Pauline Carroll); ‘Poems’ by Sidney Nolan (Lady Mary Nolan); ‘Experiment with Death’ by Max Harris (Mrs Yuonne Harris and Mr Peter Ward); Correspondence of: John and Sunday Reed (Dr Richard Haese and Mr Philip Jones); Noel Counihan (Professor Bernard Smith); Mary Martin (Mr David Martin).
Further acknowledgement is due to Dr Richard Haese and Mr Philip Jones for permission to examine material in the John and Sunday Reed Collection.